When surrounded by evil and despair, sometimes the only way to set things right is to unleash the darkness within one’s self. This is essentially the theme for the recently released, gritty revenge thriller “Harry Brown” starring screen legend Michael Caine.
“Harry Brown” is the story of a former Marine and widower (Michael Caine) who has been content with living out his life in peace amidst the crime and decadence consuming his tenement. However, when his best friend is brutally murdered by a neighborhood gang, Harry decides that enough is enough. Calling upon his military training he begins his quest to discover who exactly was responsible for his friend’s death and punish them accordingly.
Since the focus of the story is that of crime running rampant and an elderly former serviceman driven to vigilantism to stop it, one cannot help but draw an instant comparison to Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”. Unfortunately, the inevitable comparison does not exactly work in this film’s favor. While “Harry Brown” is an average movie, it sadly never attains the emotional depth and momentum that made Eastwood’s film so great. This is a real shame, because the potential was definitely within this film’s grasp.
The biggest problem with “Harry Brown” lies within the screenplay written by Gary Young. Throughout the entire film there are just too many missed opportunities for development (either for the characters or the emotional depth of the movie), inconsistencies within the story, and lulls where simply nothing of any consequence is occurring.
The missed opportunities are most recognizable in those scenes touching upon Harry’s family or rather the lack thereof. He’s a widower who was forced to watch helplessly as his wife slowly faded away. Obviously being his wife her death would leave a gaping hole in his life. However, I feel that the script could have taken some time to explore their relationship prior to her death so that the emotional impact of her passing wouldn’t be reliant solely upon the obvious marital connection of the characters.
At the same time, there is a passing mention that he and his wife had a daughter who died at a surprisingly young age. The problem with this apparently minor plot point is that once it is introduced they never really speak of it again. Not that I want a child’s death (fictional or otherwise) to be exploited in a movie, don’t get me wrong. But, I do feel that the inclusion of this bit of history for Harry would have provided a little more emotional weight to the character, rather than being just another question mark from his past.
Then there’s the inconsistencies found throughout the entire duration of this movie. These issues are glaringly obvious in regards to the various crimes the gang members cause and how widespread they may or may not be.
I mean, it’s quite apparent that this gang has a stranglehold over the complex Harry lives in; however, he seems almost oblivious to any real threat existing from them. This blatant inconsistency becomes all too apparent when his friend Leonard is telling Harry of all the mistreatment and threats he has received at the hands of these hoodlums. Yet upon hearing the news, Harry seems surprised that things are that bad.
I just find it hard to believe that such a violent gang would be picky as to which tenants they choose to abuse. So Harry’s lack of fear or knowledge of the gang seems unlikely, given the severity of the actions we are shown being perpetrated elsewhere in the complex. Admittedly he does express some slight trepidation when walking near the gang’s primary place of business, but beyond those brief moments he shows no outward signs.
On top of those problems plaguing this film, there are the moments of boredom that creep in periodically. For instance, far too much time seemed to be spent on just showing Harry doing virtually nothing but sitting around his apartment or eating or something equally mundane. Granted, this was intended to show how lonely his lot in life had become, but I didn’t feel that we needed to be reminded of this fact so many times. I’m not saying that there should have been more action sequences or something like that, but the story could have benefited from slightly more judicious cuts in the editing room to speed things up a bit.
However, not every aspect of the story was weak; the scenes focusing on Harry’s vengeance were especially strong and compelling. During these moments every aspect of the movie seemed to be firing on all cylinders. I appreciated that the main character, which is well into his golden years, was allowed to show he could still dispense punishment, sometimes in an extremely violent manner, without losing any believability. For this achievement I feel that credit must be given to the film’s first-time director, Daniel Barber. So many directors could or would have been tempted to go overboard with the violence to a point beyond the character’s physical capabilities, but he chose to wisely show restraint and the film benefited from this greatly.
Another area in which the film really succeeded was in its casting. Front and center is veteran screen legend Michael Caine (“The Dark Knight”) as the titular character. Michael plays the role to perfection with a natural ease and grace, but also an underlying sense of authority and a quiet strength that demands your attention. He seamlessly blends together grandfatherly qualities one would expect from a man of his age, while at the same time unleashing a surprisingly grim and justifiably violent side that has remained dormant since his youth. It is this intriguing dichotomy at odds within his character that elevated this movie beyond its less-than-stellar screenplay.
Leading the supporting cast is actress Emily Mortimer (“Shutter Island”) as Detective Inspector Alice Frampton. Emily plays the straight-laced Alice with such conviction, smarts, and realism that she easily outshines her fellow actors portraying other members of the police force. Unfortunately due to how well fleshed-out her character is and the strength of her performance, all of the other police officers appear to be inept when it comes to their jobs. I’m sure this was not the impression the writer and director wished to convey regarding the police force, but it happened all the same and the film suffers for it.
Alongside Emily in a smaller, yet equally pivotal supporting role is actor David Bradley (“Harry Potter” films) as Harry Brown’s best friend, Leonard. Even though David is not given a whole lot of screen time, he does the most with what he has to make Leonard a memorable character. This proved vital given that Leonard’s story arc is the crutch that the majority of the movie rests upon. I was somewhat frustrated by the fact that David wasn’t allowed more time in the film because he is a good actor, but more importantly, his scenes opposite Michael Caine were some of the strongest in the movie. Oh well, I’m not the one calling the shots though.
In the end, it’s a real shame that a movie like “Harry Brown” was hampered by this laundry list of issues, because the potential for an intense thriller was there. It’s just that the writer and director failed to capitalize on all of the opportunities presented to them. Even so, the acting in the film is very strong, sometimes to the movie’s detriment (in the case of Emily Mortimer) and the action is gritty and hard-hitting. While “Harry Brown” isn’t the most well-written film you’ll ever see, it is worth watching if for no other reason than Michael Caine’s riveting performance.
“Harry Brown” is rated R for violence, language, and nudity/sexuality.